As a Health Editor, I've tried an awful lot of wellness trends in my time. From high protein, low carb diets, to daily ice baths, to ultra marathons (yep, that one was fun), I'm always the first to offer to test the latest must-try.
While some have stuck (running has become a firm main-stay), others, not so much. The super high protein, low carb phase of 2020 left me with no energy, while opting for all-organic (as much as I still try to, where possible), felt unattainable as soon as the cost of living crisis hit.
That said, last December, I felt in a bit of a rut. I'd just run Chicago Marathon with a seven-minute personal best, yet I felt lethargic, my skin was breaking out, and my exercise motivation was at an all-time low. I'd done some reading into the hormonal contraception I'd been taking and decided for a number of reasons that it was time to come off the pill. That said, having long been on the pill to manage my polycystic ovary syndrome symptoms, I was fearful of what I might experience on the other side (I'm looking at you, post-pill acne).
After doing a lot of research on hormones, how your blood sugar levels impact your hormone health and inflammation levels, and how what we eat can massively impact both of these things, I stumbled across biochemist Jessie Inchauspé, otherwise known as The Glucose Goddess, on Instagram. She tracks her blood sugar spikes after certain meals, sharing the graphs online, and I'd seen a friend raving about the changes they'd seen to their skin, mood, and general well-being after trying her Glucose Goddess hacks.
Naturally, I was keen to give them a go myself. While I had little understanding of the foods that spike our blood sugar levels, I was keen to learn. I knew that studies have shown around 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, which can mean more frequent blood sugar spikes and in turn, inflammation-associated issues, such as weight gain, acne, and more. So, could taking a hard look at my diet, lifestyle, and the factors causing inflammation really help?
I was also keen to see if I could balance my hormones naturally via lifestyle changes, knowing that the majority of women with PCOS also have irregular levels of the hormones testosterone, luteinising, globulin and prolactin. I wanted to give my body a chance to not only feel its best, but have a healthy and regular period, too.
I've been trying the new lifestyle - I won't call it a diet, because it isn't one - for six months now, and I have some serious thoughts. Keep scrolling to read my story, and don't miss our guides to blood sugar spikes and foods for hormone health, while you're here.
Inflammation diet: my journey to balancing my hormones via lifestyle
It's important to start by saying that, while I'm a Health Editor who runs marathons for fun, when it comes to food, I've always been firmly of the opinion that we should enjoy everything, albeit in moderation.
That said, while I thought I had the basics nailed last year, I knew something wasn't quite right. My skin was breaking out, I had seriously low energy, and I felt tired after sleeping for nine hours. Sure, it might have been the Christmas madness and office parties, but by the end of December, I knew something had to give.
So, come January, I stopped taking my contraceptive pill and took a long, hard look at both my lifestyle and dietary habits. While there are a whole host of things you can do to balance your hormones via diet, the main focus is on eating whole foods, reducing your sugar intake where possible, and moving after meals.
Needless to say, all of that can feel a little overwhelming at times (trust me, I felt like I didn't know where to start either). That's where Inchauspé's raved-about hacks come in - by far the most straightforward way I could see to balance my hormones. These span:
- Eating within an hour of waking up
- No caffeine on an empty stomach or before food
- A balance of fibre, protein, fat and carb at every meal, with the fibre, protein and fat consumed first (sometimes a veggie "starter" before meals, and no "naked" carbs)
- Savoury breakfasts
- Daily movement
- Sweet things eaten as a "dessert" after lunch/dinner
Her hacks are also summed up in handy infographics on her channel, like the below.
A photo posted by on
Speaking to nutritionist, naturopath and founder of ARTAH Rhian Stephenson about my journey, she reassures me that focusing on foods and a lifestyle that's beneficial for PCOS could benefit me within a matter of days. "While this will depend on what you're trying to address and what your baseline nutrition looks like, you'll likely notice better mood, more energy, better bowel habits, and a reduction in bloating once you make the changes," she shares.
Jodie Relf, PCOS dietician and spokesperson for MyOva agrees, adding that in PCOS specifically, women typically experience insulin resistance, which is thought to be responsible for many of the hormonal imbalances associated with PCOS and low-grade chronic inflammation. "A key part of managing your PCOS is reducing inflammation and improving insulin sensitivity," she explains. This is where food comes in, as the foods we eat impact both our insulin and inflammation levels and therefore play a huge role in managing the condition.
Various studies have shown that certain foods can help decrease inflammation, whilst other foods, such as alcohol and processed foods, increase inflammation. So, for the next six months, I'd be focusing on choosing foods that were high in fibre, contain slow-releasing carbohydrates, and include protein to slow down glucose release and decrease my insulin levels.
As she points out, "making changes to your diet can drastically improve your PCOS symptoms."
Do note though, other changes to underlying hormone balance will take longer to notice, so it's important to commit for at least six months."For some of the more complex conditions, making purposeful, positive changes to diet and lifestyle will be a part of ongoing symptom management," Stephenson stresses.
Taking things one day at a time, I took on one of Inchauspé's "hacks" each week and made it my focus.
Week one - eating within an hour of waking up, which might sound easy, but proved a challenge for someone who's long worked out fasted and then eaten a bowl of protein porridge when I got to my desk. I eased myself in by eating a handful of nuts or some seed crackers first thing, then eating at my desk as I normally would.
That said, a few weeks in and once I'd got used to the prep time and eating earlier, I noticed I was hungry when I woke up (and then not as hungry throughout the day, meaning I was snacking less).
Week two - savoury breakfasts. Starting each day with eggs and veg or smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese on rye took some getting used to at first, but quickly became something I looked forward to every morning. I enjoyed experimenting with my breakfasts and making the time to do so, making everything from egg or tofu muffins, to frittatas, to chia puddings.
Think about it - we know we get a shed load of nutrients from veg-packed meals, yet traditionally, most of our breakfast dishes don't centre around these. Taking a step back and reassessing what I was eating first thing was really eye-opening, and I notice my satiety and energy levels pick up after just a few weeks of eating more savoury morning meals.
Week three - coffee after meals. While all of the hacks have made a massive difference, this is one of the ones that truly blew my mind - so much so, I honestly can't see myself ever going back to drinking coffee on an empty stomach again. TMI, sure, but I used to get stomach cramps and awful jitters and never thought to question that it might, in fact, be the coffee I was inhaling early doors. I've been amazed at how quickly my dependence on caffeine has vanished - now, I wake up over my savoury morning meal and will enjoy a coffee when I get to my desk if I fancy one (normally only once or twice a week, or as a treat at weekends).
Week four, and I was really getting the hang of this, making veggie starters my focus for the week. As someone who loves a snack, cutting up some cucumber to eat pre-dinner felt like a no-brainer, it just took some practice to remember. If I forgot, I'd just follow Inchauspé's advice of eating the veggies on my plate first during a meal, then the protein and fat, then carbs (she explains that this lowers your blood sugar spikes as it makes the carbs easier to digest).
Months two to three
Come month two, I felt I had the basics down. I was eating a savoury breakfast within an hour of waking up, drinking caffeine after meals, and eating a veggie starter.
That said, it was time to assess the macronutrient balance of my meals. As a Health Editor, I knew that each meal should be a balance of protein, fats and carbs - but as a runner, I also often opted for a white bagel pre a hard session, knowing that it was the easiest way to give my body fast release (and digestible) energy.
I was lucky enough to wear a Levels blood glucose monitor in my arm for this period, which would show my blood sugar spikes in real-time. This was fascinating and made me realise that a lot of the foods I was eating that I thought were a balance of protein and carbs were, in fact, largely carbohydrates, and were leading to pretty massive blood glucose spikes.
Pivoting my carbohydrate intake to focus on low glycaemic carbohydrates was a game-changer here - think sourdough, rye and pumpernickel bread, beans, wholewheat pasta, grainy bread, oats, and lentils - and I saw far fewer blood glucose spikes as a result.
Months two to three taught me a lot about what really constitutes a balanced meal, what carbohydrate sources my body prefers, and also to look out for hidden sugars in my foods (trust me, you'll be surprised once you start looking).
Some example meals are listed below:
- Breakfast: eggs and veg, chia pudding, or Greek yoghurt, blueberries and seeds.
- Lunch: lentil salad, tuna wholemeal pasta, egg muffins, or vegetable fritters.
- Dinner: Tofu poke bowls, turkey chilli, chicken fajitas, frittata, or salmon, sweet potato, and veggies.
It's important to note here that what I love about Inchauspé's approach, and why I think it's a lifestyle, not a diet, is that she doesn't tell you to cut out carbs - far from it. Instead, she encourages drinking a little apple cider vinegar in water before carb-heavy meals or dressing your carbs up with some protein and fat, too.
Relf explains: "Ideally, we want to try to limit foods that cause large spikes in glucose levels, for example, foods that are high in sugar or simple carbohydrates, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t have these foods at all."
By this point, I'd also started to notice the side effects of taking dedicated PCOS supplements, too.
At Relf's advice, I'd supplemented inositol - "this can improve insulin sensitivity and is therefore recommended as a strategy to help rebalance PCOS hormones" - and feel it has massively helped, not only in regulating my hormones, but easing my anxiety, too.
Stephenson also recommends adding some Omega 3 and D3 vitamins.
Months four to six
Come April and I was not only following Inchauspé's eating hacks and supplementing for PCOS, but taking a holistic approach and looking at things like my stress levels, sleep hygiene, and exercise habits, too.
I started charging my phone in the hallway, cutting out the option of mindless scrolling before bed and when I woke up, instead waking up with my sunrise alarm clock.
These can all influence our hormonal imbalances, as Relf points out, and I only saw increased energy levels and calm as I continued on my journey.
The results of following an inflammation diet for 6 months, plus a nutritionist's take
Honestly? I've tried the lot in my time and I've never felt better.
The small tweaks I've made haven't felt like a chore - rather, it feels like I've finally found the way I'm meant to eat. I wake up without an alarm, my skin is clearer than it's been in years, and I rarely get so hungry I can't think because I'm eating balanced, nutrient-dense meals.
Taking more time to actually look at what's in the food I'm eating would once have triggered anxiety - now, I see it as a way of empowering myself, safe in the knowledge that I'm on a journey of learning what foods work for me and my body.
Eating veggie starters and savoury breakfasts has been transformative. Not only am I eating more vegetables, but my energy levels are much more stable. (Case in point: I now drink a coffee when I fancy one once or twice a week, rather than religiously every morning).
Not to mention I no longer crave sugar as often - a sure-fire sign that something was amiss.
Debriefing with Stephenson about my lifestyle changes, she approves. "Everything you've been doing will support general metabolism and blood sugar levels," she says. "Having a veggie starter or dessert after a meal are both ways to mitigate spikes in blood sugar, and so is aiming to balance fibre, fat, protein, and carbs at each meal."
I used to read articles like this and roll my eyes, sceptical that the author actually felt as good as they claimed they did and baffled by how they found the time. But trust me on this one, if you have PCOS or a hormonal imbalance (which, FYI, 80% of women will have at some point in their lifetime) - adopting your lifestyle to meet your body's needs is one of the best things you could ever do, so it's worth finding the time.
If you're curious about the themes in this article, do book an appointment with a qualified medical professional before making any lifestyle changes.
What are the best foods to eat for an anti inflammation diet?
Good question. As Stephenson highlights, the food we eat isn't just a source of calories - "it's information, and this information influences our biology in numerous ways."
She goes on to share that the ideal hormone-healthy diet is rich in plant diversity and high in fibre, has adequate amounts of good quality protein and healthy fats, and focuses on low glycaemic carbohydrates. "Adopting a plant-forward diet means that you'll be getting a wide array of vegetables, fruit, and phytonutrients, and it also means that you'll be eating in a way that promotes the diversity and health of the microbiome, which is an essential aspect of maintaining hormone health," she explains.
Do try and be mindful of your intake of ultra-processed foods, heavily refined grains, excess sugar and alcohol, where possible. This isn't to say they can't be enjoyed, but eaten in moderation.
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Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.
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